There were a number of TV shows in the 1960s that had a military scenario as their basis, covering just about all of the branches of military service. Whether they were hour-long dramas or half-hour comedies, their goal was not historical accuracy or even military support, but rather, sheer entertainment. Despite this fact, for boomers growing up after WWII, in many cases they provided a window on that era that our parents and relatives pretty much did not want to talk about.
Mister B’s father was a big fan of many of the shows, so for the most part, they were the choice for family viewing when they were aired. Dozens were produced, but here are a few of the most popular, in chronological order of when they appeared:
The longest-running of the 1960s military-based shows, Combat! chronicled the events surrounding American soldiers fighting in France during WWII. An hour-long drama, it starred Vic Morrow as Sgt. Chip Saunders and Rick Jason as platoon leader Second Lieutenant Gil Hanley. Mister B and his father enjoyed the show immensely. Mister B especially liked PFC William Kirby, who was a wise-cracker and the squad’s B.A.R. man (Browning Automatic Rifle).
The show was also known for its guest stars, the list of which reads like a who’s who of the most popular actors of the day, including Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, James Coburn, Dwayne Hickman, Telly Savalas, Richard Basehart, Eddie Albert, James Caan, Leonard Nimoy, Frankie Avalon, Sal Mineo, Tab Hunter, Beau Bridges, John Cassavetes, Roddy McDowell, Mickey Rooney, James Whitmore, Dennis Hopper, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Keenan Wynn, Fernando Lamas, Ricardo Montalban, Claude Akins, and Dean Stockwell, to name a few.
In real life the U.S. Army fought in France less than a year, but in the series they fought on for five seasons. The first 4 years were filmed in black & white, while the final season was presented in color.
McHale’s Navy (1962-’66)
Ernest Borgnine starred as Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale and Tim Conway was Ensign Charles Parker in this comedy series about a Navy PT crew during WWII. Boomers all knew about PT boats after reading President John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage account of his WWII service, but in this lighthearted show, the crew was always getting into some sort of trouble, yet somehow thwarted the enemy along the way.
12 O’Clock High (1964-’67)
American airmen in England was the basis of 12 O’Clock High, an hour-long drama about flying day missions over Nazi Germany during WWII. It starred Robert Lansing as Brigadier General Frank Savage, who was one of Mister B’s mom’s favorite actors.
No Time for Sergeants (1964-’65)
First came the book (1954), then a teleplay (1955), then Broadway (1955), then the movie (1958) before it was made into a TV series. Each accounted the time that character Will Stockdale, a country-bumpkin farm boy, was drafted during WWII and spent his time in the Army Air Force, which was then a part of the Army.
Andy Griffith starred as Stockdale in the 1955 teleplay, then reprised the role on Broadway. Don Knotts made his Broadway debut in that production as Corporal Manual Dexterity. The play ran for two years.
Sammy Jackson starred in the comedy TV series. He had one line in the movie version, but when he heard that Warner Bros. was producing the TV series, he convinced them that he should play the lead. Character Will Stockdale’s experience growing up on a farm helped him win friends and admiration from his superiors; he could help analyze aerial photos, and had backwoods experience that came in handy for survival situations. The TV show lasted one season.
Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-’69)
A spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle got its inspiration from No Time for Sergeants. Originally, Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) was an inept auto mechanic on Griffith’s show, meant to appear in a single epsisode. The character was so popular he became part of the cast for a full year before the character joined the Marines to launch the spinoff. Gomer was played as much more of a naive idiot than Stockdale on Sergeants. He was the constant thorn-in-the-side of Frank Sutton, who played Sergeant Carter. Later the two characters became friends in the plot line. Gomer is best remembered for his exclamations of “Shazam!” and “G-aw-aw-l-l-l-y.”
Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71)
How could a comedy set in a Nazi prison camp be funny, let alone successful? Simple. It was all about the characters. The American soldiers, led by Bob Crane as Col. Robert Hogan, came and went from the camp without the knowledge of their captors. They conducted espionage missions and generally disrupted the Nazi’s plans.
Most notable among a great ensemble cast was Werner Klemper as camp commander Col. Wilhelm Klink, and the character every boomer knew: Sgt. Hans Shultz as played by John Banner. His kindhearted yet inept character had the habit of looking the other way when the soldiers he was guarding conducted themselves in a manner that would make him look bad. This resulted in his uttering the famous line, “I know nothing!” at least once every episode. Every boomer repeated that line — fake German accent and all — many times in school and home situations.
F Troop (1965-’67)
The remote Army outpost named Fort Courage, Kansas, shortly after the Civil War, is the setting for F Troop. It was a place where the Army shipped its misfits and less-than-stellar officers. Forrest Tucker starred as Sgt. Morgan O’Rourke and Larry Storch was Cpl. Randolph Agarn. The two were constantly scheming of ways to make money through illicit trading or other business shenanigans, sometimes in cahoots with the local Indian tribe, the Hekawis. Ken Berry, as Capt. William Parmenter, was the commanding officer who never caught on to the goings-on in his own troop. The show was filled with slapstick and visual humor. Mister B especially liked when the Indian Chief Wild Eagle (Frank Dekova) introduced his tribe as “We’re the Hekawi,” sounding like he was lost in an Abbott and Costello routine.
Rat Patrol (1966-’68)
Three Americans and one Englishman are on long-range patrol in the North African desert during WWII in this hour-long drama. Their mission was to engage Nazi Field Marshall Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
Christopher George starred as Sgt. Sam Troy and Eric Braeden was his German nemesis, Capt. Hans Dietrich. As many of the military-based shows, historical fact was tossed to the wind in favor of an entertaining plot line.
Mister B’s family regularly watched all of these shows, with the exception of Hogan’s Heroes and Gomer Pyle. Those were tuned in on occasion, but not on a weekly basis. Mister B became aware of Hogan’s Heroes through reruns years later.
The shows of the 1960s primarily used World War II as their backdrop. It was 1972 before M*A*S*H appeared for its eleven-year run. Like its predecessors, it was entertaining, but unlike the others, it took place during the Korean conflict, and was largely seen as a dimly-veiled metaphor for Vietnam.
Which military-based shows did you watch, boomers?